Putting end to speculations, Argentine star Lionel Messi has agreed to stay on at Barcelona till 2026, and has entered into a verbal agreement in this regard. He, reportedly, has agreed to take a 50 per cent pay-cut.
Neither the club nor Messi has confirmed it officially, though.
Messi, who led Argentina to Copa America title on July 10, has been a free agent since July 1 after his contract with Barcelona expired. Messi's decision to stay with the club he joined at 13 and played for ever since, despite the pay-cut, will come as a major relief for the financially troubled club and its president Joan Laporta.
He was club president when a teenage Messi had his breakout. He returned to run the club in March after winning an election with the promise he would use his good relationship with Messi to get him to stay.
Barcelona's finances suffered a huge blow last season, when the questionable management by the prior club board was exacerbated by a drop in revenues provoked by the pandemic.
When Laporta returned to power, he inherited a club saddled with debt of 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) and massive contracts that former club president Josep Bartomeu gave players, including Messi.
Messi's previous contract, signed in 2017, earned him an eye-popping 138 million euros ($164 million) per season. Laporta has said that Messi is willing to take a significant pay cut, but even so, the club is apparently struggling to make the numbers work.
Laporta recently said Barcelona's finances "were worse than I had imagined." He said the payroll plus other payments tallied 650 million euros ($771 million).
The Spanish league slashed the salary cap for Barcelona down from a league-high 671 million euros ($796 million) for the 2019-20 season to just 383 million euros ($454 million) for last campaign.
A new salary cap is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, but with Barcelona's finances still a mess it is expected to be much more generous. The salary cap is proportional to 70 per cent of a club's revenue.
While the 34-year-old Messi is still the team's best player, other players the club has spent big on in recent years have produced mixed results. Their high salaries now make them difficult to transfer to other clubs.
Last season, the club practically gave Luis Suarez away to Atletico Madrid to shed his salary. The Uruguay striker went on to lead Atletico to the league title.
Now, Laporta is facing similarly difficult choices with players such as Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. Bartomeu spent big to sign all three, but none of them have lived up to their cost.
Forced to get creative, Barcelona are rebuilding the side, selling off Junior Firpo, Jean-Clair Todibo and Carles Alena and replacing them with free agents Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia.
(With PTI inputs)